Into the Bronze Age: June 1970 (Part 4)

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Welcome to the fourth and final installment of my coverage of June 1970.  I’ve got an interesting pair of stories for you, so let’s get right to it, shall we?

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #389
  • Aquaman #51
  • Batman #222
  • Detective Comics #400
  • The Flash #198
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #77
  • Justice League #81
  • Phantom Stranger #7
  • Showcase #91
  • Teen Titans #27
  • World’s Finest #194

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Teen Titans #27

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Writer: Robert Kanigher
Penciler: Nick Cardy
Inker: Nick Cardy
Letterer: Ben Oda

Well, I wasn’t looking forward to this one; I’ll admit it.  Despite that, I also have to admit that this issue isn’t as bad as the previous one, though the stupidity of that story hangs around this one’s neck like an albatross.  This story is just…odd.  It is decidedly NOT a Teen Titans tale.  This is one of those late 60s space exploration movies, the ones that attempted to stay close to science fact.  You could easily pull the Titans out of this book and replace them with any generic space explorers, and it wouldn’t affect the plot one bit.  They don’t use their powers, they don’t don their costumes, and they don’t really DO anything.

Essentially, this entire story is marking time and reversing the unparalleled idiocy displayed by Mal last issue.  His pointless gesture of needless self-sacrifice, sneaking aboard to pilot a remote controlled space shot for Venus, prompts a frantic effort to save his demonstrably worthless hide.  The space program embarks on a crash construction project to create a new spacecraft to intercept and rescue Mal, saving him from his own stupidity.  (And you thought they went to a lot of trouble to save Mark Watney!)  The Titans are chosen to crew it instead of, you know, someone qualified.  They debate the worthiness of the young man’s actions as they prepare, somehow treating this whole ridiculous situation as if it had even the slightest shred of justification.  The best defense that his supporters can marshal is that Mal is ‘doing his thing.’  Yeah.  Great.  That’s tremendously compelling.

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I suppose I may be letting my bitterness about how asinine this entire story-line is show through a bit too much here.  I’m sorry, but as I’ve said, if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s logical inconsistency.  Well, the powers that be get the rocket built in time, and the Titans blast off, dropping a team off at the Moon for no discernible reason while Dove mans the controls of the main module, awaiting their rendezvous with Mal’s ship.  We get a two page roundup of the last several issues, and then we’re back in the present, and the present is mostly space procedural stuff.  You’ve got various readings being taken and reported, orders shouted, numbers and tossed back and forth, the usual.  Clearly, as we discovered with that Robin tale a while back, NASA and Apollo are on the brain for the creators and fans of 1970.

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Speedy, Hawk, and Wonder Girl (or generic astronaut’s 1, 2, and 3), the Moon team, land for their vague mission, but they discover that the materials left behind by Apollo 11 have mysteriously vanished!  The boys head out to search the area while the Amazing Amazon holds the fort.  The search proves fruitless, but when the two teens come back to the LM, they discover that the Lady Vanishes!  That’s right, Wonder Girl has disappeared as mysteriously as the Apollo 11 gear.

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Meanwhile, Kid Flash and deadweight, err, I mean Lilith, meet up with Mal.  The Fastest Teen Alive spacewalks to rescue their friend, but his tether to the module snaps.  He has to pilot them across space with a small jet propulsion device.  That’s right, he pulled an Iron Man, predating The Martian by about 40 years.

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We cut back to the Moon as those kids make their way back to the main craft, and we discover that a group of rather cool looking aliens, too well designed for the minor role they’re given, are the source of the strange happenings on Luna.  They appear carrying all of the missing items, including an unharmed Wonder Girl.  The creatures turn out to be friendly, and they share their story, which involved them leaving their home world to pursue strange radio signals, only to crash-land on Earth’s satellite.  They took the devices left behind by Apollo 11 to try to repair their ship, but when Wonder Girl explained things to them, they brought everything back.

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The kids depart, promising to send help soon (Superman could just give them a tow, I suppose), and all of the disparate craft link up, prompting their return journey, but not before Kid Flash earns some chauvinist points by responding to Wonder Girl’s statement that she was so happy to see him that she could kiss him by saying “Just like a doll!  Thinking of kisses when we’re still over the Moon!”  Classy Wally.

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On the way home, their oxygen mixture is off, and it drives them temporarily mad, setting them at each other’s throats.  Fortunately, the young speedster manages to have enough presence of mind to fix the problem, and they all make it home, safe and sound, where Mal will surely be thrown in jail for the rest of his natural life for stealing a multi-million dollar spacecraft and causing the expenditure of untold further sums to rescue his stupid self….at least, if there were any justice in the world…We end with an ambiguous tease for next issue that features little more than a woman screaming.

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This wasn’t a bad issue, taken strictly on its own merits, but not much happened and it was not, as I said, really a Teen Titans story.  The Nick Cardy art is beautiful, of course, though it makes me miss his Aquaman stories a bit.  This tale is fairly realistic, minus the aliens, and the attention to scientific detail, as well as the connections to the real and recent history of the space program, was surprising.  Unfortunately, it didn’t make for the most gripping of stories.  Of course, the whole of it is weighted down by the fact that the event that drives all of the action is insufferably stupid.  I’m looking forward to this current direction changing, as it doesn’t have much to recommend it.  The idea of these young heroes having to wrestle with the consequences of their actions is a promising one.  We’ve just seen an incredible movie dealing with the similar themes of the consequences of the use of powers in the form of Captain America: Civil War.  Clearly, the idea has legs.  This odd, pointless set of tales, however, aren’t worthy of setup.  I’ll give this particular story 2 Minutemen.  I’m taking off half a Minute for Mal’s imbecility.

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World’s Finest #194

World's_Finest_Comics_194.jpgCover Artist: Kurt Swan
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

This was a surprisingly fun story.  I read it a while back, and it didn’t make a big impression on me.  It is by no means the height of comic craft, but it is definitely solid quality Zaney Haney, fun and not too insane.  It holds together reasonably well and displays Haney’s mastery of creating interesting, memorable one-shot characters.  The tale features the World’s Finest team with all of their vast power facing off against the overwhelming threat of…the Mafia?  That’s right, we continue this month’s trend of superheroes fighting non-super threats.  At least this feels somewhat fitting for Batman, and it also seems like the type of thing that Superman would involve himself in if it was necessary.  He’s really a ‘no job too small’ kind of guy.

The issue opens with young Dick Grayson doing a familiar act, but one which the world has not seen for some time.  He is back as the last member of the Flying Graysons, performing at a circus for charity.  At the same time, Batman is there, keeping an eye out for anything untoward, as the circus owner, a fellow named P.J. Farnum (get it?) has been pressured by the mob.  Suddenly, while Batman is distracted by a hood threatening Mr. Farnum, the Teen Wonder finds himself facing the same deadly fate that claimed his family!  The wires for his high-flying act have been sabotaged, and he begins plummeting through the air.  He hits the safety net, but it too has been cut!  The last Grayson continues his perilous plunge toward a seemingly intractable fate, but at the last moment he is rescued by…a clown?!?

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That’s right, Superman was on hand as backup, undercover as a clown puttering around the ring in a little car.  It’s a fun visual to see Superman half in the disguise, looking goofy, but smiling and waving to the crowd.  There’s something rather fitting for the Man of Steel, that he would be so unconcerned with his appearance and reputation that he would dress up in a silly costume and hang around in the background, getting no attention and no accolades.  It’s silly, but it’s rather nice.

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Unfortunately, the mafioso responsible for this “accident” slipped away, but he is only a small fish in a the growing problem of the Mafia.  The World’s Finest team decide that they must put a stop to this sinister organization, and they point out that it isn’t just a matter of busting heads, as these guys are professionals, very slick and very careful.  Even if they catch the rank and file goons, the organization continues because the folks at the top are protected by the law, seemingly being legitimate businessmen.  Of course, one would be forgiven for thinking that this really shouldn’t be that much of a problem for Batman, who could just make the mob leader cry like little girls, whether he could prove anything or not, but we’re still dealing with a fairly Silver Age-y Batman here, one who lounges around eating oranges while Hanging out with Superman, and who also plays much more by the rules.

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Anyway, the heroes decide to have the World’s Greatest Detective and master of disguise infiltrate the Mob…ohh, wait, no, they decide to have Superman do that…yep, Superman disguises himself as a forger and arranges an ‘introduction’ to the mob by faking a job on one of their banks.  His chutzpah and skills impress the boss, and he gets an introduction to Karl Lukaz, the “Big Uncle” who runs the organization, a rather distinctive looking fellow with an eye-patch and a soft spot for canaries.  It is in this fellow that we see Haney’s ability to create memorable supporting characters for these brief, passing roles.  However, the boss of bosses doesn’t welcome the incognito Man of Tomorrow with open arms.  No, he has to pass a loyalty test.  Now, what would be a fitting test for a forger?  Perhaps, forging something?  No, no, nothing so mundane.  Lukaz wants his new friend to murder Bruce Wayne!  Dun dun, dunnnnn!

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That’s right, he wants the forger to do some contract killing.  How did this guy end up running a criminal empire?  Every manager worth his salt knows you should let employees stick to their specialties!  Well, the disguised Metropolis Marvel arranges with his friend for Bruce Wayne to be “killed” during a charity polo match, and the supposed playboy billionaire’s horse is quietly tranquilized, sending him on a terrible tumble.

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Despite “Big Uncle” pulling a surprise inspection of Wayne’s body in the morgue, the deception holds, thanks to Batman’s foresight.  For his troubles, Clark learns of a secret stash of evidence that Lukaz uses to ensure the loyalty of his “nephews,” a stash that would provide the authorities just what they need to take the entire organization down.  The hero bends all of his efforts to locating this Damoclean Sword of evidence, but despite using his abilities in many clever and creative ways (subtly scanning with x-ray vision, reading computer tapes with microscopic vision, and more) he has no luck.  It seems “Big Uncle” is too smart to leave his Achilles Heel unprotected.

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Meanwhile, Batman is beginning to act a bit strangely.  It seems the fall from his horse didn’t do him any favors, and he is having terrible head pains.  Nevertheless, at Superman’s urging, the Dark Knight agrees to infiltrate the Mob as well.  One does wonder why this wasn’t the first plan.  After passing Lukaz’s test with some quick thinking and smooth talking, Batman is in position, but his efforts also turn up nothing, so the pair decide to put “Big Uncle” on ice in the Fortress of Solitude and have the Masked Manhunter take his place in hopes of weaseling the information they need out of Lukaz’s lieutenants.

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I love the thought of Superman just dropping a criminal off in the Fortress.  It’s hilarious and strangely sensible.  After all, where are they going to go?  Anyway, a meeting of the major crime bosses sees Batman’s head-trauma bear bizarre fruit, as he shows up in costume, but still disguised as Lukaz.  What’s more, he exposes Superman and presents him with a kryptonite funeral wreath, leaving us on a strange cliff-hanger!  What has happened to the World’s Greatest Detective and what will become of the World’s Finest team?!

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This was a fun issue, though it was a bit odd and silly around the edges.  The idea that Superman would be the one to go undercover really is rather strange, especially since his partner is the World’s Greatest Detective.  It does feel a bit like burying the lead.  Despite that, I enjoyed seeing Clark having to reason his way through his challenges, using his powers in subtle, careful, and thoughtful ways.  He can’t just punch his way through this problem.  Instead, he has to be clever, and I enjoy seeing Superman employ his brains.  Batman doesn’t get all that much to do, and his head-blow induced personality change (not quite right for the Head-Blow Headcount, sadly!) is an old device.  I’m curious to see where it will take us next issue.  This was enjoyable, and Haney managed to give the mob boss some personality instead of having him just be a stock character, the generic gangster type.  It was definitely a step up from last month!  All things considered, I’ll give this one 3 Minutemen.

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Final Thoughts:

So, how did this set of issues seem to y’all, my fine readers?  Personally, I think this was a pretty strong month.  We had some great stories, like JLA and Aquaman, and we also had a delightful surprise with Manhunter 2070!  That by itself was enough to make this month memorable.  In addition, we had a much more famous debut, with the introduction of Man-Bat.  Even though that comic wasn’t necessarily the greatest, it was exciting to see a classic symbol of the Bronze Age make his first appearance.  Of course, we also had some clunkers, like Teen Titans and GL/GA.  Yet, even missteps like these are beginning to look different.

These aren’t just groaners like the occasional bad Superman comic, overly goofy Silver Age pieces outliving their era.  No, these are issues that are much more the outworkings of a certain climate of ideas, products of their time.  As ham-handed as O’Neil’s writing was in the Green Lantern book, he was trying to wrestle with interesting and challenging themes.  In the same way, the Teen Titans book, despite the stupidity of the driving force of its plot, was a love letter to the space race and the culture’s obsession with the subject.

Though there wasn’t as clear of a common theme as there was last month, there were definitely some interesting trends to be noticed.  We saw hints of the social tensions of the day in the Batgirl backup and even, in a very subtle way, in Aquaman, with the Girl Friday’s shocking willingness to kill purely for the sake of prejudice.  Of course, we mustn’t forget the trendy Batman story featuring the Beatles…errr….I mean the “Twists.”  All told, this was a fun, interesting month, with some good touchstones for the changing culture and the changing genre.  Of course, we’re still seeing inconsistencies across the board, with certain characters evolving in one book but not another.  I’m curious how long such disconnects will continue.

Well, that’s it for June 1970!  I hope you enjoyed this trip with me, Into the Bronze Age!  Please join me next week as we begin our examination of July!

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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We had Batgirl join the not so illustrious company of the Wall of Shame this month, though Robin is still in the lead.

Into the Bronze Age: May 1970 (Part 4)

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Yikes!  This is a busy time in the semester for me, but I hope that y’all will find this issue worth the wait.  Time for another step in our Bronze Age journey!

Roll Call (You can see everything published this month HERE)

  • Action Comics #388
  • Batman #221
  • Brave and the Bold #89
  • Challengers of the Unknown #73
  • Detective Comics #399
  • Flash #196 (Reprints, won’t be covered)
  • Flash #197
  • G.I. Combat #141
  • Justice League of America #80
  • Showcase #90
  • Superman #226
  • World’s Finest #193

Bonus!: Star Hawkins (for real this time)

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Superman #226

Superman_v.1_226.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Leo Dorfman
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

“Uncle Sam’s Prize Prisoner!”
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Curt Swan
Inker: George Roussos

Heaven save me from these gimmicky Superman stories!  Apparently writer Leo Dorfman caught King Kong on the late movie this month and thought, ‘hey, what if Superman were King Kong?’  The answer?  Well, it turns out it really isn’t all that interesting.  This issue is effectively just a series of sight gags as a colossal Superman reenacts King Kong…for reasons.  Many of the individual panels have at least a little visual interest, but in the end, there’s no reason to tell this story.

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We join our hero as he’s headed to a showing of, you guessed it, King Kong.  To this issue’s credit, it makes no bones about what it is up to.  Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen are getting concessions before the film, and Jimmy discovers a strange red marble in his crackerjacks.  As you have likely guessed, this is red kryptonite.  Since that is the macguffin that Silver Age writers used to justify whatever bizarre silliness they wanted to shove into a Superman comic, you can probably guess what type of story we’re in for.

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superman 226 0005.jpgI’ll admit, I like seeing Superman and his supporting cast just palling around.  After the opening credits, the Metropolis Marvel finds himself feeling very strange.  He dives out of sight and suddenly begins to grow at a tremendous rate!  Swan’s art really does a nice job with these gimmicky visuals.

Unfortunately, as he grows, the man of Steel also seems to lose his ability to think and speak.  Insert your choice of political joke here; you really can’t go wrong.  So Super Kong begins to rampage across Metropolis, mostly accidentally, and he picks up Lois so she can play the part of Fay Wray in this little farce.  In response, the police begin to fire on the colossal Kryptonian, which of course does no good.  Interestingly enough, they immediately assume that it isn’t Superman because he wouldn’t doing all of this.  For once the police assume that the hero acting out of character ISN’T the real McCoy, and it turns out that he is the genuine article.  There’s some irony in that.  Of course, they immediately reverse their assumption when their bullets have no effect, saying “Only Superman could flatten bullets like ping pong balls!”  Really?  It’s not like Metropolis has never seen anybody else that could do such things, like Bizarro, Metallo, and your garden variety giant robot that Lex Luthor invents every Tuesday.

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Small arms having proved useless, the police call out their para-corps (!) to drop gas on the giant hero. Again, we get a nice panel to capture this strange moment.  To further the Kong plot, Superman scopes up Lois and starts climbing the tallest building around, only to be assaulted by jet-fighters!  Yep, they recreate the most famous scene from King Kong, complete with a tumble from the heights, which, of course, doesn’t hurt the giant Man of Steel the way it does the oversized ape.

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The massive Man of Steel continues his inadvertent rampage, but eventually the fog in his mind begins to clear, though he still can’t speak.  The super-sized Superman takes the only logical course of action.  What?  No, he doesn’t use his finger or his heat vision to carve a message that people could read, don’t be silly!  Instead, he runs to Washington D.C. and tears up the Washington Monument to carve a message bigger than he is!

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Of course, no-one can read this, and the government recruits Lois to serve as a trojan horse to disable the huge hero.  She shows up in a tank as a distraction while a plane drops a kryptonite bomb, knocking him out.  He awakens chained to a giant kryptonite cross erected on the National Mall.  Fortunately, Jimmy, flying in the Daily Planet private helicopter (!) comes to his friend’s rescue, using big rolls of lead foil to insulate Superman from the kryptonite.  Handy that Jimmy was just carrying those around.  Well, as silly and contrived as it is, and that’s hardly worth mentioning in this goofy story, the monstrous Metropolis Marvel escapes and dives into the sea.

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Next, we get the obligatory secret identity farce that these types of tales seem to think is always necessary.  Clark Kent shows up just in time to see the giant Superman rise out of the sea and head into space.  Both Lois and Jimmy are watching, and they tell Clark that they got suspicious when he disappeared at the same time the Man of Steel showed up.  I wonder how many times they’ve done this plot?  It’s got to be hundreds at this point.

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Anyway, the story wraps up by explaining how our hero was able to manage this.  It seems he flew at super speed, got Titano, the giant ape (because one Kong wasn’t enough, apparently), and dressed him in a Superman costume.  Really.  The final panel tells us that Superman is going to go clean up all the damage he did while he was giant.  At least they thought about that, which means this ridiculous, silly, unnecessary, and super Silver Age-y story was given more thought than the entirety of Zack Snyder’s treatment of Superman.  Good job there, Zack.

Well, this is a silly , pointless story.  There isn’t much to it, other than some fun visual moments.  It really feels like a relic in this climate that is already beginning to change.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen.  It’s not bad, just very Silver Age-y and irrational.

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“Uncle Sam’s Prize Prisoner”

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As is often the case, the backup tale is a lot more enjoyable than the headliner.  This relatively clever story features our favorite mild-mannered reporter paying a visit to a secret laboratory hidden inside a mountain (Dexter would be proud) to interview a scientist engaged in top secret research for the government.  Yet, in the middle of their discussion, the scientist has a heart attack and dies!  Before he shuffles off this mortal coil, he entrusts the formula for a secret missile defense system component to the visiting newsman.

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Being a patriotic American, Kent heads to DC and tells them what he memorized, but as he is leaving the building, he is nabbed right off the street by two men in suits!  Unable to put up too much of a fight without risking his identity, Clark is carted off into a waiting car.  It turns out his abductors are actually G-Men, his new bodyguards, in fact!  The government is afraid that this good citizen will now become the target for the ever wonderfully vague “foreign powers.”  Well, that’s a pretty pickle for a hero with a secret identity, isn’t it?  This is, unlike that first story, an actually interesting wrinkle.  How can Superman ditch these guys, who stick to him like glue, in order to do his work?

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The first test comes as he’s sitting at his desk in his office, where his x-ray vision detects a window cleaner’s harness break, threatening to send him plummeting to his doom.  In order to make a stealthy exit, the Man of Tomorrow cooks off a canister of tear gas the agents have nearby, and he slips out in the resulting confusion.  Ouch, Supes.  That’s a bit hard on those poor agents, but I suppose there is a life at stake.  His mission of mercy accomplished, our hero almost gets caught returning to his office.  That was close!

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Next, those pesky “foreign powers” DO make an attempt to grab Clark, and he has to subtly and secretly use his heat vision to melt the incoming and outgoing bullets so that no-one dies in the exchange.  I’ll refrain from more Snyder bashing.  Anyway, it’s a nice moment, and very indicative of the character.

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Later, Clark and his ‘handlers’ are leaving the Planet, and he spots those same enemy agents down the street.  Our disguised hero slips into a manhole cover to make his getaway while the G-men are distracted, but he falls right into the hands of the very enemy spies he was trying to avoid!  They question him for hours, with, of course, no results, but then the situation takes a dire turn.  They prepare to start torturing him, and as a soon as the first goon breaks a fist on his face, Superman knows his secret will be revealed.

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A female spy intercedes to try her own methods of persuasion, and he lays a “super kiss” on her that practically knocks her out.  While I think the ludicrous grab bag of powers that the Silver Age Superman eventually acquired is silly, I rather like this moment.  He doesn’t mind-wipe her or any such nonsense, he just takes her breath away with a heck of a kiss.  Right on, Clark.  It’s a genuinely funny beat.

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Knowing he’s running out of time, Mr. Lips of Steel decides to “break,” declaring that he’ll tell them what they want to know.  Of course, he lies his kester off, claiming that the good professor had cracked the secret of cryogenesis.  The spies decide to test it on their prisoner, which works out just as he had hoped.  They throw him in the deep freeze after giving him the random mixture of chemicals that he requested, and, of course, he is able to be revived after the process.  He manages to brazen it out, after that, pretending to still be frozen, and thus unaffected by their bullets.  That’s the weakest point of this story to me.  It seems like they might have suspected something here, but it’s a fairly minor complaint.

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superman 226 0031.jpgThe Man of Tomorrow is able to escape, but when he arrives back home he finds himself under arrest…for treason!  The government discovered that he “shared” his secrets.  Fortunately, they release him when they realize that he didn’t actually give anything away and, what’s more, was under extreme duress.

This is a fun, clever little tale.  It isn’t a big, bombastic adventure, but it is a chance for Superman to show off his intelligence and resourcefulness.  I do enjoy just stories.  I like the central problem here.  It’s a variation on a common theme, Clark having to act as Superman without revealing his identity, but at least it at is an interesting variation, one I haven’t seen before.  We’re definitely seeing that same Cold War tension here we’ve seen elsewhere, no surprise seeing as this is a Haney tale.  He seems to like these generically East/West charged yarns.  Swan’s art remains beautiful and classically effective.  In the end, I’ll give it a 3.5 out of 5.  It’s definitely an above average story, but there isn’t quite enough to it to bump up to a 4.

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World’s Finest #193

World's_Finest_Comics_193.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

And this insipid little adventure continues.  *Sigh*  As you might have gathered from the previous issue’s entry, I really was not a fan of the tale that Haney decided to tell here.  It’s just so silly and ridiculous, without the charm that often accompanies his zaney stories. At this point, I am completely over this inane outing.  This issue suffers from all of the problems of the previous, but it doesn’t have as many redeeming features.  Or maybe I’m just sick of it.  The cleverness and resourcefulness of the heroes that made the last tale more palatable is here replaced by incompetence and helplessness.

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Our story, such as it is, begins in media res, picking up from the last issue with Batman and Superman imprisoned behind the iron curtain in the fictional, vaguely commie nation, Lubania.  Our heroes are being tortured in various sadistic ways.  For example, Superman must hold a heavy weight suspended above Batman’s head, and if the former Man of Steel should falter, his Bat-Buddy will be crushed.  Superman struggles on for a day and a night, but when he finally weakens, they discover that the weight has stoppers.  It was all a cruel trick.  This sets the pattern for our continually generic Colonel Koslov’s tortures.  Our heroes are being broken down, starved and tormented.

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He also straps feathered lures to the World’s Finest (totally not in evidence here) Team and has them jump on a trampoline while he unleashes his falcon upon them.  Meanwhile, Batman stages a fake breakout to throw Koslov off their tracks in preparation for a real breakout, which is also thwarted.  Here’s my central problem with this story.  Obviously there’s the stupid touches, like Batman being allowed to keep his mask and utility belt, even if it has been emptied, but you have this totally unimpressive villain who somehow is two steps ahead of one of the greatest minds on the planet.  Really?  That just doesn’t work for me.  You’re telling me Batman, as intelligent and resourceful as he is, can’t break out of this generic prison camp?  Bah.

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Anyway, getting back to the story (do I have to?), Perry White is touring the camp and complaining about conditions, but, of course, he can do nothing.  Yet, while he watches, Superman suddenly gets his powers back, and the pair of heroes charge right through the stalag, knocking over guard towers and ripping through barbed wire.  White meets the two at the border and takes them home, where they are greeted with a ticker-tape parade and debriefed by the Pentagon.

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Of course, it’s all a ruse, and the two “heroes” are double agents planted to feed the U.S. misinformation and ferret out state secrets.  Back in camp, the Dark Knight and the Man of Tomorrow are very much tired of today.  They pretend to break, painting anti-American slogans on the camp, but they steal supplies for a disguise kit so they can switch identities.  This means that the “synthetic kryptonite” waves will be hitting the wrong hero.  When Koslov tries to assassinate them that night, Superman stops him and the duo escapes.  It’s really not terribly dynamic or interesting, given the build-up we’ve had all issue.

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Back in the U.S., the burst in just in time to prevent the two red agents from detonating a bomb in the Pentagon.  Fortunately, their switched identities confused the spies long enough for Superman, as Batman, to destroy the device.  The tale ends with Koslov now in prison and our heroes free.

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Well, this one was a real slog.  I was tired of the concept by the end of the previous issue, so I was dreading this one.  It certainly didn’t get any better.  In fact, it got substantively worse as the heroes played out the roles of a half dozen prison camp movies.  I’m bored with it in the extreme.  I give it 1 Minuteman.

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Bonus: The Space Museum!

w85121_20.jpgWriter: Gardner Fox
Artist: Carmine Infantino

The Space Museum was the third rotating feature in Strange Adventures, along with my two previous bonus topics, the Atomic Knights and Star Hawkins.  Just like those other features, this one routinely rose above the goofy, usual 50’s flavored sci-fi fare that filled the rest of that book’s pages.  Also, just like the other two, this concept was unique and creative.  Instead of following a particular character or cast, the Space Museum tales would tell a different science fiction story from the future.  Each story began with a frame tale, which would follow a young boy as his father brought him to the museum for a visit.  Each of their visits would focus on one particular exhibit, and the father would then tell the story surrounding that relic.

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Because of the nature of their serial, anthology characteristics, these were varied and manifold.  They tended to follow brave explorers or soldiers who traveled space and faced strange new threats.  In a particularly fun and surprisingly advanced tale, our narrator related the story of a courageous general and a cunning admiral, who eventually became man and wife, in fact, the very parents of our young museum goer.  It was interesting to see such a progressive portrayal of a woman in these old tales, which tended towards rather blatant sexism.

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Somehow they managed to be a cut above the other stories in each issue, perhaps because Fox saved his best material for these particular yarns.  Whatever the case, they are really excellent examples of classic comic science fiction, with the innocence and wonder of the Silver Age, but generally avoiding its most ridiculous aspects.

 

Final Thoughts:

Well, dear readers, I believe this was a pretty strong month, over all.  It had some weak points, but it also had some remarkably strong points.  Several titles had great showings, including a few that I’m not usually a big fan of.  We’ve seen some really interesting and powerful treatments of the dominant themes abroad in the zeitgeist with the Haunted Tank story and the like.  That one just impressed the heck out of me, and I just can’t help but compare the effectiveness of its storytelling and the ham-handed preaching of Denny O’Neil’s in the Green Arrow/Green Lantern book.  Clearly it isn’t just that writers in the Bronze Age lacked subtlety or attention to tone.

I’ve also seen several areas with what I consider some wasted potential, like the Thanagarian doomsday cultist and our generic German baron with the dueling scars.  Ohh, right, and I also learned something that continues to fascinate me, about the academic dueling societies.  I may have to challenge one of my fellow medievalists to a duel, just so I can say I’ve had the experience!

Either way, we have written ‘finis’ to May 1970, and a good month it was.  Thank you for reading, and I hope you will join me, this weekend if I can manage and next week if not, for the next chapter in our journey Into the Bronze Age!

Into the Bronze Age: March 1970 (Part 4)

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And back to the Bronze Age, March 1970!

  • Action Comics #386
  • Batman #220
  • Brave and the Bold #88
  • Challengers of the Unknown #72
  • Detective Comics #397
  • Flash #195
  • G.I. Combat #140 (no Haunted Tank story, won’t be covered)
  • Green Lantern #75
  • Justice League of America #79
  • Phantom Stranger #5
  • Showcase #89
  • World’s Finest #192

Bonus!: Star Hawkins

Bolded entries are covered in this post, the others will be covered soon.

Showcase #89

Showcase_Vol_1_89.jpgCover Artist: Mike Sekowsky
Writer: Mike Sekowsky
Penciler: Mike Sekowsky
Inker: Jack Abel

 Jason’s somewhat vague quest continues!  This month, we open with a one page summary of the previous issue and then pick right up where we left off.  Jason is riding down the road towards Paris, while far away his corpulent adversary is yelling long distance at a couple of hired killers, ordering them to kill the boy and his missing sister.  The interesting note here is that the two French thugs (how very not intimidating) are answering Tuborg, the hefty horror’s call on a car phone, circa 1970!  I’m always astonished by such things.  I wonder how they worked before the invention of cell phones and the like.  I assume it has to be some type of radio hook-up, but I don’t know.

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Anachronistic technology aside, Jason finds a young blonde woman next to a sporty foreign car, and stops, thinking it is his sister.  When he greets her, she answers in a thick southern accent, supposedly Louisianian, but much more like Texan.  She further surprises him by planting a big kiss on him!

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The girl seems to already be picking out their wedding china when the killers arrive.  Despite the fact that they are only about fifty feet away and using a telescopic scope, these geniuses still manage to miss the young pair by a good several feet.

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Jason and the young lady, Billie Jo, take cover, and once again surprising our hero, the girl pulls out a revolver and continues indulging in Texan stereotypes, though she’s from “Lo’isiana.”  She quite blithely starts blazing away, and then the pair make their escape on Jason’s bike.  Except for the weird angle of Billie’s arm, this gives us a pretty dynamic and attractive splash page, which shows what Sekowsky can do when he wants to.

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A chase ensues, and the youthful daredevil manages to stay ahead of the assassins by going cross country until he runs out of gas!  They flee into the woods and are pursued by the French toughs, armed with a submachine gun and a rifle!  The girl displays positively suicidal levels of bravery, insisting on stopping to take on the two heavily armed killers with her single revolver, but fortunately for her, Jason has more sense.

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They arrive at a Chalet looming out of the trees and get in through a window.  Hiding in the darkened building, Billie once again falls to romantic thoughts, but they are interrupted by a gun barrel!

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They discover an older woman, the owner of the house who is not too happy about these trespassers in her home, until she realizes that Billie Jo is a southerner.  Fortunately for our young lovers, this lady just happens to also be from “Lo’isiana,” despite the fact that she is living in a Chateau in the middle of the French countryside!  What a coincidence!  As I say, it is fortunate for Jason and Billie Jo, as this tough old lady also displays foolish levels of bravery and confidence, casually engaging in a gun battle with the two killers outside to defend these two kids she’s just met.

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dc showcase 089-22.jpgAs the bullets fly, the heroes flee at their savior’s urging, refueling the bike and taking off, the assassins in hot pursuit in a stolen car.  The chase continues with the our protagonists joining a cross-country bike race (where’s Lance Armstrong?), which helps them stay ahead of the hunters, but it all comes to a head when they reach a bridge that is under construction.  Jason manages to stop his bike in time, but the heavier car of his pursuers is not so agile, and they take a brief but dramatic trip down a cliff.

Our story ends with Jason telling Billie Jo his story.  Just think about that for a moment.  This entire time, all she’s known about him is that he is American and was being hunted by killers, but nevertheless she is willing to go through all of this for him.  This kid must have some kind of charisma!  The two part, and our young wanderer continues his eponymous quest.  Our last image is another of those really cool, movie-poster like teasers for the next issue.  I’ll say this for Sekowsky, he can create some nice, cinematic images, even if the quality of his art in this book is rather uneven.  It is, however, superior to that Phantom Stranger story from this month.

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All-in-all, this is a solid adventure yarn, quick moving and exciting, though the double coincidence of meeting Billie Jo, who looks like his sister, and then their expatriate protector is a bit much, especially as she and the young lady prove to be distantly related on top of it all.  Also, the complete, unthinking willingness of these utter strangers to risk life and limb in a fight that they A) know nothing about, and B) have no stake in, is rather wild.  It makes for an entertaining story, but it certainly strains credulity.

That’s not to mention the inexplicable competence and coolness of these two ladies.  Now, I’m all for southerners being depicted as hyper-capable and tough.  After all, we’re a hardy breed, and rural folks will generally be more inured to the hardships of life than others, though those generally don’t involve gun battles in this country.  This book seems to read like a movie in a lot of ways, and that element of cinematic style is, I imagine, intentional.  This type of tale is surely not unknown in the 70s, the hero on the run, meeting interesting and colorful characters along the way.  It’s a good formula.

Jason still doesn’t have much personality, though.  In fact, he utterly pales in comparison to the two ladies in this story.  In the final analysis, I suppose I’d give this story 3 Minutemen out of 5.  It’s a pretty average adventure.  Like the previous issue, it’s a nice change of pace, but nothing earth-shattering.

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World’s Finest #192

World's_Finest_Comics_192.jpgCover Artist: Curt Swan
Writer: Bob Haney
Penciler: Ross Andru
Inker: Mike Esposito

 I really do hate the kryptonite deus ex machina of these Silver Age flavored Superman stories.  Bring on “Kryptonite No More!”  This particular team-up is another Bob Haney outing, and while it is not nearly as zaney as some of his offerings, it is certainly lacking in logical consistency and has some sillier elements.  I’m guessing Haney had just watched Stalag 17 or the like, as this story has the definite feel of that WWII/Cold War thriller genre.  It features out heroes getting captured behind the Iron Curtain in some vaguely German-type country by a generic villainous army/secret police officer.  As an aside, I’m really amazed there isn’t a TV Trope entry for this type of character.  It’s really a plot much more suited to the likes of G.I. Joe than Superman and Batman.

The interesting thing about it is how this story provides a little snapshot into the Cold War tensions of the day, but even in 1970, I have to think this book would have felt like a bit of a throwback.  After all, there’s a big difference between 50s flavor red scare and 80s flavor.  I imagine the 70s would likely have its own distinct subgenre.

This Haney tale begins with Superman flying over a generic “Central European dictatorship, named Lubania, where an equally generically evil officer, in this case, named Colonel Koslov, is observing the Man of Steel via radar.  The Colonel has his lackey trigger an “accident” with one of their trains, endangering the lives of many of his people, all in order to lure Superman into their nation.  The Man of Tomorrow obliges, though he notes that he doesn’t have permission to enter Lubanian lands.  Superman saves the train, but he is hit by a device of Dr. Zirkan, a generic scientist type and unwilling pawn of Koslov.

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This machine emits “synthetic kryptonite radiations, which are converted into radio waves….because that makes sense.  But far be it for me to criticize comic book science.  No, the thing that bothers me about this whole setup is the fact that this mini-Mussolini just happens to have a device capable of projecting long-distance kryptonite waves.  Who is this loser to have such a thing?  Not only that, but apparently it just robs Superman of his powers, not crippling or harming him otherwise.  What?  Isn’t kryptonite, you know, toxic to the Man of Steel?  Details such as this matter not one whit to Zaney Haney.

Well, nonetheless, the effects of this device prove rather troublesome for Superman, as he happens to be soaring over the countryside when it hits, sending him plummeting to his death!  This panel demonstrates rather nicely the solid job Andru does on the art chores for this issue.  He turns in a lovely house style-type issue.

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Or rather, it would have if the Man of Might were any second rate hero, but he is as resourceful as he is powerful, and he manages to steer for a water tower, using his cape as a parachute.  It’s a nice moment, and it is within comic book logic for him to survive this way, despite the fact that he’d just be wet in addition to pulped in real life.  I’ll give Haney that one.

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Koslov steps up the villainous cliches by bringing out his hunting falcon as he begins the search for the downed superhero.  Meanwhile, on the ground, Superman discovers that these plans have been well laid, and the countryside is plastered with posters offering a reward for his capture.  Realizing that he can’t stroll out of the country in his ‘working clothes,’ the Man of Tomorrow wisely decides to change into his civilian garb, even tearing and muddying it to make him seem like a vagrant.  That’s smart, and nicely indicative of Clark’s ability to use his brain as well as his brawn, which makes his next move so baffling and frustrating.  He lands in a deserted spot in the countryside, changing in a ruined house.  He realizes he can’t just carry his super suit around, so he does the sensible thing and buries it….wait, no he doesn’t, he has a much goofier idea.  To ensure it isn’t discovered, he buys some balloons from some children, ties them to his costume, and sends it aloft.

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Clearly, that’s much safer than burying it in the middle of nowhere.  The costume will be much harder to find hanging nicely visible in the air.  It should come as no surprise that Koslov sends his falcon to retrieve the costume, which acts as a giant “SUPERMAN WAS HERE” sign.  He then puts some dogs on the hero’s trail, and they hound him (I’m sorry!) through the countryside.  Superman makes another clever, though bat-guano insane, move here, as he swings along high tension power lines to throw the dogs off his trail.  He’s no longer invulnerable, so one slip and he’s a fricasseed Metropolis Marvel.

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Superman escapes to the city, making his way to the American embassy, only to discover that the “ambassador” is a fake.  He apparently realized this even before entering the building because the flag outside only had 48 stars.  One wonders why bothered to walk into the obvious trap.  We clearly aren’t meant to ask such questions of this story.

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Clark steals a radio from the embassy, and he once again displays his resourcefulness by making a mini-receiver out of the larger machine that he can conceal as he moves about the city.  Using this device, he hears a “radio liberation” broadcast from Batman!  The Dark Knight informs his crime-fighting partner that he’ll be parachuting into the country that night in order to help him escape!  Unfortunately, the voice is a fake, and Koslov peppers the countryside with bogus Batmen to trap Superman.  Our hero happens upon one of them, and he fakes cowardice in order to get the drop on this duplicitous double.  He steals the fallen fake’s costume and is able to move about undetected.

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Eventually he encounters another phony hero, and the two come to blows, but it turns out the phony is actually the genuine article, who Superman knocks out just as he discovers this fact.  This I didn’t care for.  Sure, Superman could turn Batman to ash with a look, but without his powers, the Caped Crusader should really be able to clean his clock without too much trouble.  Now, Bats gets his bell rung because he’s stunned by the realization that he’s fighting his friend, but still, the whole contest shouldn’t have been that even.  I realize I’m well inside the borders of pedantic nerd-dom here, but it bothers me nonetheless.  Y’all know by now that a lack of logical consistency is my main pet peeve in these stories.  On the plus side, this sequence is nicely dynamic and well drawn.

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Anyway, their fight attracts our generic Colonel, and he and a handful of soldiers manage to capture Superman and Batman, the world’s finest heroes.  These are just regular losers with guns, not a super power between them.  Superman is without his powers, sure, but you’re telling me Batman couldn’t manage to drop a smoke pellet, throw a batarang, or otherwise arrange a daring escape?  This niggling problem is magnified by the next twist of the story.

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Rather than gun them down, our heroes are carted off and interned in a prison camp that is right out of The Great Escape.  Here’s the bit that bothers me.  They let Batman keep his costume, not even bothering to take his utility belt.  ‘Do we want to know who Batman really is?’  ‘Nah, he’s our prisoner, why would we do that?’  That’s just asinine, as is the idea that a utility-belted Batman would spend more than about five minutes in this generic prison camp.  This is why the folks behind the Lone Ranger insisted that he never get captured long enough to be unmasked because, obviously, that’s the first thing you do when you capture a masked man.

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This story employs an interesting concept, even some really enjoyable episodes, but the ridiculous elements, the maddening plot contrivances, and the usual Haney excesses really ruin it.  I like seeing Superman having to rely on his wits, and the idea of him powerless behind enemy lines has some legs.  He and Batman teaming up to evade secret police could give us a good yarn.  Instead, we get this schizophrenic little story.  I’ll give it 2 Minutemen, though the frustrating bits are almost enough for me to knock it even further down.

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Bonus Feature: Star Hawkins

Star_Hawkins_001.jpgWriter: John Broome
Artists: Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs

(Gil Kane for the Who’s Who Entry)

This is another of those rotating features from Strange Adventures, like the Atomic Knights, and like that other great concept, this particular character also tended to produce above average sci-fi yarns.  Star Hawkins himself was a neat character idea, a private detective in in the distant future.  You see plenty of spacemen characters, explorers, space cops, and the like, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another future private eye in comics.  It’s a really neat way to explore a future setting, not from the top, with spaceships racing between the stars, but from the bottom, with a gumshoe walking through the rough streets of that far day.  He premiered in Strange Adventures #114, and like the Knights, he was a rotating feature that appeared in every third issue following, though this character lasted longer than the ill-fated warriors of the wastelands.

Star is not exactly the traditional “Hard Boiled Detective,” not a Phillip Marlowe or a Sam Spade.  Instead, he’s a bit more of the smooth type, more like the charming and cheerful Richard Diamond.  The Detective is clever, tough, but he’s not overly cynical or world-weary.  In fact, he’s a bit of a romantic.  He is, however, in keeping with the archetype, perpetually down on his luck and short of scratch.  Hawkins is perpetually running short of funds and in need of a case.

Yet, Star doesn’t tackle his cases by himself.  No, he has a very unique and entertaining girl friday named Ilda!  Interestingly enough, she’s a robot secretary who is usually key to Hawkins resolving his cases, often in unusual and surprising ways.  This is, at its heart, a comedy feature, but it actually pulls off genuine entertainment, which is something of a rarity in the Silver Age.

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Your average story has Star so low on funds he might even have to pawn poor Ilda (which raises some interesting questions about robots and free will, but that’s neither here nor there), and then finding a case that can pay the bill, often catching clever crooks, usually with Hilda’s aid.  For a secretary, she came complete with all kinds of features.  She’s super strong, super tough, ray-proof, and has all sorts of neat features, like the ability to communicate telepathically with her boss.

Together, they fought a range of interesting future crimes, and the whole range of stories were often funny, entertaining, creative, and just plain fun.  Both Star and Ilda are likable characters, and their dynamic is a charming one, the classic gumshoe and secretary, with the twist of Ilda’s indispensable aid.  All-told, these are fun, light stories, and they are decidedly above the quality of the average Silver Age sci-fi yarn.  Check them out and discover a neat hidden gem from that era!

 

Final Thoughts:

So, here we are at the end of our third month.  This was an interesting set of stories, and once again we had some highs and lows, often from the same folks.  This month gave us an excellent Bob Haney story and one that really rubbed me wrong.  We had artists turning in good work in one book and rather ugly work in another.  It was an uneven month, and still very much in that middle ground.  I feel like Matthew Arnold’s pilgrim from his “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse,” looking down at the ruins of a former time and feeling the pressure of a new age about to begin, yet not finding himself fully present in either reality.

“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
Their faith, my tears, the world deride—
I come to shed them at their side.”

Fortunately, unlike Arnold’s traveler, we are not quite so morose about the scene before us.  We are, however, very much in an intermediate stage of comics.  The major events of the Bronze Age wait just over the horizon, and there is still much influence of the Silver Age on these stories.  In fact, I’d say a good quarter of them, notably the Haney and Superman books, are just about indistinguishable from your average issues from the mid 1960s.  Yet, the Batman books are beginning to change already, unsteadily, but with increasing speed and consistency, they are leading the way to something new.  Of course, next month sees the advent of that groundbreaking run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow by O’Neil and Adams.  We have an increasing social conscious evident in Justice League, an evident desire to mix things up in Phantom Stranger and Showcase, and there is more on the horizon.  I find myself once again anxious to dive into next month’s stories!

In particular, I find myself very eagerly (and rather impatiently) awaiting the arrival of The King at DC Comics in 1971.  Jack Kirby will very soon, in just over a year of publication, begin his amazing and all-too-brief tenure of storytelling in the DC Universe.  1971 will give us the short, yet incredibly productive and foundational runs of all of the 4th World titles.  I’ve read all of those before some years ago, and they are very much a work in progress.  Much like Lee and Kirby’s amazing run on the Fantastic Four, every issue throws out an unprecedented amount of concepts, and some of them are brilliant and endure, some of them are clunkers.  The overall effect, though, is fairly mind-blowing.  Plus, who can resist Jack Kirby’s spell-binding art!

I’m also looking forward to the many new, though short-lived books that are going to pop-up in the 70s proper.  In particular, I’m excited about reading through the insane sounding Beowulf book from 1975.  I’m a medievalist, and Beowulf is one of the texts I study, so it will be a lot of fun to see this rather unique take on the epic.  Plus, I love Beowulf himself as a character (he’s my second favorite epic hero, after Aeneas).

All of this is to say, there is some really exciting work on the horizon, and I hope you’ll all join me as we continue our trek…Into the Bronze Age!

 

The Head-Blow Headcount:

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Surprisingly, we don’t have any more head-blows to add to the counter.  We came close with several characters, including Vigilante and Batman, but they didn’t quite conform to the stereotype.